Paganism in Utah

Witchcraft, also known as Wicca, is one of hundreds of pagan religions followed around the world. And there are hundreds of Utah pagans.

For some the word “pagan” might bring to mind images of prehistoric tribal people in remote village huts. While most pagan traditions are based in the ancient past, most modern pagans present a much more familiar picture. They hold jobs at offices or stores or call centers. They send their children to public schools. They drive cars rather than broomsticks.

Paganism is an umbrella term that describes a wide variety of traditions and practices. There are as many “flavors” of paganism as there are denominations of Christianity, if not more, says Tara Sudweeks Willgues, also known as the Rev. Heron. Wicca, Asatru, Stregheria and Shamanism are all types of paganism, just as Lutheranism, Methodism and Catholicism are denominations of Christianity.

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Misperceptions and fear cause many pagans to keep their choice of religion hidden, especially in the workplace, says Maureen Duffy-Boose, founder and president of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist pagans, a national pagan group.

“Even in our culture in 2007, the normal cultural response is that pagans are weird,” Duffy-Boose said. “I know people who have lost their children because of this religion. I know people that have lost jobs. I know one person who was actually evicted from her apartment.”

Prejudice occurs because pagans have been the subject of “1,000 years of negative propaganda,” says Gretchen Faulk, founder of the Order of Our Lady of Salt, a pagan group in Salt Lake City.

One woman, who asked not to be identified, says she lost her job as a public school teacher when it was discovered she was Wiccan.

But Duffy-Boose and Faulk agree that such conflicts are rare, and most Utahns are respectful of pagans. When conflicts do occur, discussion usually leads to understanding, they say.

“I feel like Utah is one of the most tolerant places of religious diversity in the nation,” Duffy-Boose says. “I believe this has to do with how it was founded. The people who founded it knew what it was like to be persecuted.”

What draws a person to paganism? The answers are as diverse as pagans themselves.

Many are attracted to paganism because it is a modern tradition with roots in the past. Most types of paganism practiced today are considered neo-paganism, because they’re based on modern understanding of the past, yet they’re adapted to meet the needs of people today, Heron says.

Many pagans describe becoming dissatisfied with the religions of their youth and feeling an instant connection to paganism when they discovered it. That was the case with Kelly Richan, who practices Asatru, a religion based in Norse traditions. Richan leads Eagle’s Kindred, an Asatru group in Ogden.

“When I first found the Kindred, I thought, ‘I’m home,”‘ Richan says. “It was a feeling of roots, a feeling of home. It made sense of everything I was feeling.”

Duffy-Boose said many people seek a religion in which feminine deity play a significant role, and nearly all pagan religions honor both gods and goddesses. That desire led Faulk to create the Order of Our Lady of Salt nearly 12 years ago.

She was raised Christian, but as an adult she lost interest in the notion of God the Father and was drawn more and more to the idea of female deity. Eventually she began to practice Wicca, which emphasizes the importance of both gods and goddesses.

The Order of Our Lady of Salt holds monthly Goddess Worship Services that center on a specific goddess from one of the world’s cultures. Faulk and her group have worshipped figures from Norse, Greek, Roman and Egyptian traditions, among many others.

The group has also focused on revered female figures who aren’t usually seen as deity, but who “function as goddesses,” Faulk says. Mary Magdelene, the LDS Mother in Heaven and even Lady Liberty (the Statue of Liberty) have all been the subject of worship services.

Another thing that draws people to paganism is the fact that it doesn’t try to dictate what its followers must believe or how they must behave, Duffy-Boose says. There’s no universally accepted doctrine, and diverse ideas are welcomed.

Paganism lets its followers do their own “heavy lifting philosophically,” Heron says. There’s no authoritative scripture such as the Bible, so each person must determine what he or she believes and how best to live ethically.

Even so, pagans are not completely without spiritual guidance. For example, Asatru is guided by what it calls the Nine Noble Virtues, which include courage, truth, hospitality and discipline. It’s up to each person to determine how to apply those virtues, Richan says.

People are also drawn to paganism who have a “deeply ecological bent to their spirituality,” Duffy-Boose says. To pagans, a grove of trees or a dirt path is as sacred as any temple. Nearly all pagans consider it “a sacred duty to sustain the Earth, to cherish and nourish it, to use our resources to heal the damage we’ve done to the planet,” she says.

Heron is the founder and spiritual leader of the Church of the Sacred Circle, a Wiccan group that meets in a yurt in her back yard in West Valley, where she leads a variety of Earth-based services and rituals.

One such ceremony is the crystal well ceremony, which she leads twice a month, at every full moon and every new moon. The ceremony is designed to “attune the self to the Earth,” she says, and to “heal and balance.”

In the candlelit shelter in her yard, a woman uses a mallet to strike the side of a deep 2-foot-wide bowl, producing a clear tone. She then runs the mallet along the bowl’s edge, and the tone grows to a deep drone. Other participants repeat the process on smaller bowls, producing higher tones, until a chorus of resonating tones fills the space.

A woman lies face-up on the ground, and Heron begins to speak as the harmony continues.

“Feel the warm embrace of the great mother,” she says. “Feel yourself putting down roots into the Earth. Feel them flowing downward like water. They seek the warmth and life of the Earth.”

She continues speaking, urging the woman to release her tension, to release negative energy and welcome positive energy. The woman rises and smiles, a man takes her place on the ground and the ceremony repeats.

Jeremy Appling, who participates in the crystal well ceremonies, says he does so because of the way it connects him to the Earth.

“When you observe all the elements, you observe a really strong peace inside of you,” he says.

Every pagan group chooses what rituals carry the most meaning for them, or they make up rituals of their own.

“It doesn’t matter who made it up, or when,” Duffy-Boose says. “It works. It’s sacred. It’s spiritual. It gives honor to things that deserve honor. It enlightens people. It assists people to live better lives.”

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